Cuts having impact at Space Command

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The combination of congressional gridlock and sequestration from the Budget Control Act is creating a very austere working environment for the Air Force Space Command.

Space Command is headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, but has offices around the world, from the United States to Greenland. Its mission is vital to war-fighters in all branches of the military, but its budget underwent the same cuts as the rest of the military.

“We have eyes all around the world,” said Maj. Joe Iungerman, deliberate operations planner for Space Command. “We can communicate faster, move faster and know where they are. It gives the American soldier a significant advantage over the enemy.

“We can see every missile launch and we can communicate with forces anywhere in the world.”

Space Command is also responsible for surveillance, able to view any place on earth every day, all day. It’s responsible for surveillance in space itself, tracking other satellites and debris, and it operates the essential Global Positioning System.

It also has a cyber-security mission, dealing with both offensive and defensive operations in the Air Force’s networks. It’s responsible for securing 21 different networks with 1 million Air Force users and 1.9 million devices that connect to those networks.

“No military operation goes on that Space Command doesn’t have a part of it,” Iungerman said.

But the myriad of missions is under threat from sequestration and from a budget environment that is even more uncertain in 2014.

The Budget Control Act mandated that the command had to cut its contracts by 50 percent, leading to about 100 layoffs throughout the command, said Monica Pitel, deputy director of the command’s financial management and comptroller division.

“Our maintenance budget was cut, so we’re curtailing a lot of maintenance and operations for the buildings,” she said. “And because we’re responsible for operating so many satellites, it’s the equivalent of cutting out a weapons program. This might look like an administrative building; it’s really a weapons system.”

The command had to cut not only its maintenance and operations, but also its travel budget. And two months into sequestration, the full impacts are just now being felt.

“We are seeing a spiral impact, as we enter the fourth quarter of the fiscal year,” she said. “We’re going to have to phase out more and more projects. Every day, we’re seeing more impacts.”

And they’re doing more with fewer people, under the restraints of an 11-day civilian furlough requirement that started last week. That means civilians are limited to a 32-hour workweek, no matter what, for an 11-week stretch.

“We also had to stop temporary employment,” Pitel said. “We’d hired people on a temporary basis to fill in for deployed service members. And not only do we not have the service members now, we don’t have their replacements. The command lost subject-matter experts in space and cyber security, as well as janitors and maintenance workers.”

The future looks even more uncertain.

“We just don’t have a plan,” she said. “The budget is presently going through Congress, so we don’t know what 2014 will look like. What we do know — we can’t continue to do business in this fashion. It’s nearly impossible.”

President Barack Obama has asked for $526.6 billion for the Department of Defense, the same as its 2013 request, but 8 percent higher than under sequestration.

Beyond that, the DoD is hoping for increases of about 2 percent annually, just to keep pace with inflation.

There’s no mention of sequestration in the 2014 budget request. Defense Comptroller Robert Hale told Defense News that it’s not a problem.

“Our request does not take into account a possible $52 billion reduction if sequester becomes an annual event,” he said in the report, “but the president has submitted a budget with a balanced deficit reduction plan of $1.8 trillion over 10 years — more than enough to meet the targets of the Budget Control Act.”

Hale told Congress that the bulk of cuts were falling to operations and maintenance, because those dollars were more flexible. Continuing cuts in that way is impossible, he said.

Pitel agrees.

“Things break,” she said. “And what we know is maintaining is much cheaper than fixing them. We might be faced with more expensive projects in the future — as we fix or replace what we didn’t maintain.

“Sequestration could end up costing more money.”

But that budget still has to get through Congress, so senior defense leaders are telling comptrollers across the military to prepare for another 10 percent cut in 2014 and possibly a 5 percent cut in 2015.

Even if those further cuts are made into law, Pitel is hoping for more flexibility in implementing them.

“We need to be able to move money around,” she said, “instead of just constantly cutting across the board. More flexibility — and more certainty — could make a big difference.”